Five weeks into the season, Redskins are still searching for an identity on both sides of ball

The Washington Post's panel of football insiders discuss the team's inability to establish an effective running game through five games.
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 17, 2010; 12:15 AM

When Joe Gibbs coached the Washington Redskins from 1981 to '92, only one team, Chicago, ran the ball more. When Gibbs returned for a four-year stint from 2004 to '08, only two teams attempted more rushes. The Redskins, whether they had old-school John Riggins or modern-day Clinton Portis, had an offensive identity: They ran the ball.

What, then, to make of these Redskins, the 2010 version? They have thrown the ball as few as 19 times in one game, as many as 49 the very next week. Five games into his first season as the coach of Gibbs's old team, Mike Shanahan - replete with a reputation as a run-first coach - is still waiting for the identity of his Redskins to take shape.

"I think if you take a look at the offenses I've run, I think you know the identity," Shanahan said immediately after last week's overtime victory over Green Bay, the game that begat 49 pass attempts. "What is our identity right now? Well, it's not very good, because we're not as consistent as I'd like to be."

When the Redskins take the field Sunday night against Indianapolis, they will be facing a team with a clear sense of self. Since he entered the NFL in 1998, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has thrown more passes than anyone else, and Indianapolis's fortunes - though the team has boasted stars at defensive end in Dwight Freeney and safety in Bob Sanders - are carried capably by Manning's right arm. Entering Sunday night's game, Manning again leads the NFL in pass attempts, throwing at least 43 times in four of the Colts' five games.

The Redskins, though, have a new coach, a new quarterback, a completely new offensive system - and as of yet, no real defined style. They are 31st in the league in third-down efficiency, but they rank in the top 10 in yards per play. Their passing offense ranks seventh in the NFL, but their red zone offense is abysmal. Once they get inside the 20-yard line, only one team is less efficient in scoring touchdowns.

"We're working to get that identity, if it's a running team, if it's a throwing team," quarterback Donovan McNabb said, "whatever it may be."

An offense that will work

Despite the statistical disparities, the Redskins are 3-2 and - by virtue of their 2-0 intra-divisional record - lead the NFC East. But the way they arrived at that point shows Shanahan is still trying to apply his system to the team he inherited and began reshaping. More than anything, the first five weeks of the season revealed that this is a process that, as McNabb said, "will take a while."

"You always have to adjust to your personnel," Shanahan said. "You have the offense that you'd like to run, and you take a look at the offense and what you can run, and what you think will work. If you're going to take an offense and say, 'Hey, this is my offense,' and all of a sudden you don't have the pieces, then you don't have the ability to do that. So you try to evaluate your personnel, see what they do best, and run the type of offense that gives you a chance to be successful."

Because Shanahan is, at base, an offensive coach with a well-defined philosophy - his Broncos ran more frequently than any other team in the league during his 14-year stint as the head coach in Denver - there was an easy assumption that he would arrive in Washington and run, run, run. Shanahan's reputation precedes him to such an extent that, as the team prepared to kick off against Green Bay last week, former Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman, now an analyst for Fox, outlined his expectations for the Redskins' offense.

"So many times, nowadays, you see a lot of teams going to the spread offenses, quarterbacks in shotgun formations," Aikman said on the broadcast. "Not so much here in Washington. This is a two-back offensive set."

And then the Redskins proceeded to use a three-wideout, no-fullback set for their first two series. That, then, began the disparity against the Packers, when the Redskins ran 21 times and threw 49. The split, in the previous week in Philadelphia: 35 rushes, 19 passes.

"We're not going to be one-dimensional and say, 'Hey, we're a running team; we're going to try to stick to the run no matter what,' " center Casey Rabach said. "I'm not saying we'll be a passing team and we'll stick to the pass no matter what, either. What works that day is what we're going to do."

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